Sunday, August 8, 2010


Some people scrapbook for a hobby; others might fish, or sew, or read.  When I find myself with an empty Saturday what I like most to do is cook.  I'll peruse my supplies, or collect treasure from the garden, then surf the net to find recipes to try.  Sometimes what I make is a complete flop, but often I'll end up with something new and delicious.

My kitchen skills have evolved slowly over the past twenty years.  I started out as a terrible cook.  Granted, in eighth grade I was awarded "Homemaker of the Year", but I believe the home economics teacher took pity on me as I frequently would enter her class in tears over some middle school drama.  (That is a story for another time, if I choose to write it at all!).  It certainly wasn't because of my fine cooking skills.  During high school the most I could make was chocolate chip cookies or food from a box (Party Pizza, frozen disgusting stir fry, Steakums--eek!).  In college, if it wasn't dorm food or pizza then ramen noodles ruled.  Eventually I was bold enough to try grilled cheese, but often I would just eat Cheerios for dinner.

It took a few years of living on my own for me to finally develop an appreciation for cooking, and without detailed instructions my skills were still mediocre at best.  I remember one attempt in my early twenties of making pumpkin pie from scratch.  The recipe I used called for pumpkin, but did not go into specifics on how to use a fresh pumpkin.  Back then I thought the pumpkin pulp was the stringy stuff you got when you scooped out the seeds.  That pie was pretty much the scariest item I have ever attempted. 

What finally worked was practice and a decent cookbook.  Between a Cook's Illustrated subscription and the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook I was able to learn a little more detail behind the recipes.  Don't overbake chocolate.  Don't cook garlic too hot or it will brown and get bitter.  Cook the pumpkin in the oven for 45 minutes, then puree it in a blender before you make the pie (or, better yet, just buy a can of pumpkin).  With the detailed information and lots of practice I can now take pride in the dinners served.

I tell my students that one skill they need to learn before they go on their own in this world is to cook with real food.  That means starting with fresh ingredients--leave the boxes on the shelves.  Those boxes are filled with so many preservatives and salt that it would be difficult (and expensive) to live a healthy lifestyle by cooking from them most of the time.  A vegetable garden is helpful but not necessary--there are plenty of farmer's markets and decent produce sections around.  Start of by simply stir frying some vegetables in a pan, or make a salad.  Eventually you will gain experience and confidence in the kitchen.

This week I was into baking, and really into chocolate!  A few days ago I cooked up the tomatoes into spaghetti sauce and made some Italian bread to go with it.  I use Dominique's Italian Bread recipe which has worked out well.  The key is when you roll up the bread to roll it tightly so your bread will have a height to it.  Too many times I didn't roll it into a tight log and ended up with very flat and wide bread.  Here's what my tightly rolled bread looks like in the end:
It's great for dipping into spaghetti sauce or eating with roasted garlic.

To deal with my chocolate cravings I made chocolate bread.  Not everyone will appreciate chocolate bread--it's not a sweet bread, but is great with cream cheese or marscapone.  My kids ended up liking it:

The chocolate bread ended up giving me a craving for chocolate cake, and it just so happens this week someone on Twitter posted a link to a nice recipe for everyday chocolate cake.  This woman has a beautiful blog with lovely pictures.  My cake turned out delicious, although I can't take food pictures the way she does:

It didn't sit around very long before we inhaled quite a bit of it.  Yum!

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